Prorogation: Not a Four-Letter Word

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In early December, 2008, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Governor General Michaelle Jean to prorogue parliament, only a few months after a general election had been held that returned his Conservatives to power with a minority government.  The reason for his request was obvious. The opposition Liberal and NDP parties had agreed to form a coalition government, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, and were poised to bring his government down on a confidence motion. Only prorogation before that vote could be held would “save” his government. Although Jean made a show of delaying her consent while consulting with a number of experts on parliamentary procedure, she eventually agreed to Harper’s request. As a result, parliament was prorogued for two months, during which time Mr. Harper and his party’s well-funded communications machine managed to convince a sizeable number of Canadians that coalition governments were somehow unparliamentary, undemocratic and almost the equivalent of a military coup.  Less than a year later, in an effort to quell growing opposition to his government’s handling of the Afghan detainee issue, Mr. Harper once again asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament, this time for 3 months, on the pretext that the Winter Olympics were being held in Canada in February. 

Both of these prorogation moves were widely criticized by Canadian academics. One, highly-regarded political science professor Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto, wrote that “no Prime Minister has so abused the power to prorogue” as Mr. Harper.[i] It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Mr. Harper – who was visiting the United Kingdom at the time – publicly supported the recent move of British prime minister Boris Johnson and his minority Conservative government, to attempt to prorogue parliament at the height of his efforts to ram through the Brexit deal he had promised voters, a deal that was vociferously opposed by a majority of parliamentarians. But Johnson’s bid was rejected in a strongly-worded decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled his attempt unconstitutional.

Fast forward to Canada in the late summer of 2020. On August 19 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament until September 23. A media and opposition party feeding frenzy has ensued, in which many facts have been ignored and criticism has been widespread, leading the  average person to conclude that something is rotten in the state of Denmark ( or in this case Canada). The very word ‘prorogation’ may soon be treated with the same contempt that befell ‘coalition.’ For example, many media articles have cited the relevant sections of 2015 Liberal platform commitments on democratic reform, (which decried Harper’s prorogation tactics and promised not to do the same), and then have implied that these promises have now been broken with Trudeau’s decision to prorogue. Several accounts also mention the UK and Johnson’s prorogation attempt, again suggesting by default that this is similar to what is happening here. Yet the facts simply do not support these accusations. In reality there is absolutely no similarity between the Harper and Johnson cases and this one. Quite the contrary.

First of all, prorogation itself – like coalition government — is not a four-letter word. Prorogation is perfectly legal/constitutional in parliamentary systems and is used routinely by governments to re-set their agendas. The problem comes when this legitimate tool is used for inappropriate purposes. Both Harper and Johnson used prorogation to try to save their minority governments from almost certain defeat, which is definitely considered unacceptable. But Mr. Trudeau’s minority government was in no danger whatsoever of being defeated before Sept. 23. 

So what is the usual purpose of prorogation? Prorogation ends one “session” of a parliament and starts another, which automatically means a new Throne Speech, the tool which outlines the government’s agenda. In a majority government situation there would usually be one prorogation at the halfway mark of a four-year term, but there could be another if events warranted it. In this context it is striking that Mr. Trudeau NEVER prorogued in his first four year term. THAT was unusual. Moreover his argument that he is choosing to prorogue now because a new Throne Speech is needed, to set a new agenda after the extraordinary events of the past year, is well within the bounds of normal prorogation motives and easily defended.

Another key point in determining the perceived political legitimacy of a prorogation is length. Trudeau has prorogued parliament over an already- planned summer recess of 4 weeks that was to end on Sept 21, and will now go to the 23rd.  Stephen Harper prorogued parliament over the coalition threat for 2 months, and nearly 3 months over the Afghan detainees issue. Whether this prorogation needed to be for a month, or, as some experts have argued, would have been more appropriately scheduled for only a day or two before the expected return of parliament in September because of the uncertainties of the pandemic, is certainly a moot point, but hardly merits the outraged criticism of the media and opposition.

Even more significant, Trudeau has said he will consider the vote on the Throne Speech to be a confidence vote. Only votes on money bills are automatically confidence votes, so it was up to the government to say this. This means that he is actually providing the opposition with an opportunity to defeat his minority government and force an election, the very thing Harper and Johnson were trying to avoid.

Finally, while it is true that legislation in the works, and committee hearings, are automatically ended with prorogation, it is also true that Trudeau has specifically said he will re-constitute the Committees examining the WE contract, and that he has already provided the documents requested so that individual MPs ( hello Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre) can look at them in advance.

In short, whether or not prorogation was necessary, and whether one supports the government’s agenda or not, this move may not be without political motivation but it is far from the huge affront to parliamentary democracy that the media and the opposition parties are suggesting.

[i] Wiseman, Nelson. “The use, misuse, and abuse of prorogation”. The Hill Times. March 1, 2010